It’s incontrovertible that President Trump’s surprise ban on transgender people in the military has nothing to do with costs, military effectiveness, or any other factual basis. It’s also been well-observed that the ban is a political act, both to shore up Trump’s religious right base and to force Democrats in Rust Belt states to take potentially unpopular political positions.
But why transgender people in the military? Why this issue?
Actually, the closer you look at this odious and deplorable act, the more political sense it makes, the less surprising it is—and the more worrisome that it will turn out to be a win for Republicans. Above all, it is an attempt to split the T apart from the LGBT.
The dangerous fact is, the American public does not feel the same way about trans people as they do about gay people.
On what has, lamentably, become the defining issue of transgender equality—bathroom use—the American public is equally divided. Only 41 percent of Americans believe that trans people should be able to use the restroom corresponding to the gender identity, while 46 percent say they should be required to use the restroom corresponding to their birth sex.
Compare that to 62 percent of Americans who support marriage equality, and 71 percent who support nondiscrimination protection for LGBT people. (Data for LGB-only protection is not available.)
There are many reasons for this gap, but the mere fact of its existence should worry LGBT advocates and trans allies. The current political reality is that trans rights are very different from gay rights when it comes to public opinion. Going after trans people isn’t merely scapegoating, although it is that—it is also a canny political move to hit LGBT people at their weakest link.
Of course, Trump is throwing a bone to Mike Pence, the Family Research Council, and the other old, straight, white men of his Christian-right base. But it’s a bone that is also a winner for him politically.
Nor does this decision come out of the blue. In fact, while the Trump administration has mostly declined to pursue the Christian right’s anti-gay wishlist—vast religious exemptions, marriage non-recognition provisions— it has gone after transgender people in a number of lower profile steps. The Department of Justice reversed Obama-era guidance on transgender students. The Department of Education limited how such students can complain of discrimination. Trump appointed an anti-trans activist to a gender equality position at USAID, and another anti-trans activist to a post at the Department of Health and Human Services.
In other words, this shock announcement should not entirely come as a shock.
There are at least three major reasons why transgender issues are so politically different from gay and lesbian ones—and why Trump’s abrupt declaration might thus pay off.
First, as we saw in the battle for marriage equality, knowing someone who is openly gay or trans is the single best predictor of support for gay or trans legal equality. And while 87 percent of Americans report knowing someone gay or lesbian, only 30 percent said they know someone transgender, according to a September 2016 Pew poll.
It’s perhaps a cliché, but it really is easier to fear, dehumanize, and “other”-ize a group of people when you don’t know anyone who belongs to it. And for 70 percent of Americans, trans folks are such a group. Let’s remember, it took 20 years of activism to convince America that gay people were just like them. Trans activists haven’t had that much time.
Moreover, only around .6 percent of the population is trans, compared with about 5 percent who is gay or lesbian, and many trans folks are “stealth,” i.e., choosing not to reveal their transgender status. (This is not the same as gay people being in the closet; many trans people simply wish to live their lives according to their gender identity, and their gender histories are no one else’s business.) It’s statistically harder to know someone trans, and thus to know that the myths about them are false.
Chances are, this is also true for Trump himself. Trump partied at Studio 54 in the 1970s. Roy Cohn was his first political mentor. He has gay friends and colleagues, and so do his children.
But trans folks? I don’t know of any in Trump’s inner circle. Nor, Caitlyn Jenner (who has spoken out on the ban) notwithstanding, are trans folks among the moronic gay Republicans who support Trump—that crowd is made up almost entirely of rich gay white cisgender men.
Second, that personal ignorance helps explain the profound ignorance on the part of many Americans about who transgender people are, and what transgender even means. We know from exit polls that a majority of Houston voters who approved an anti-LGBT “bathroom bill” thought that the alternative was letting people use whatever restroom they want to. That bespeaks a profound lack of understanding of what it is to be transgender: not some whim, but a deeply-felt self-knowledge—and usually, a profound dysphoria if one’s felt gender is different from the gender one must conform to in daily life.
This ignorance is reinforced, of course, by reactionary religious leaders and opportunistic politicians. Two years ago, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention declared that transgender people simply don’t exist. Never mind what scientists say; never mind what trans people say; no, the SBC insisted, God made male and female, and that’s that.
Finally, trans people are easy to marginalize and scapegoat. Transgender is newer to most people than homosexuality. It barely exists as a legal category at all. And most importantly, it scares a lot of people.
The gender binary and male dominance have been part of our civilization for thousands of years, and trans people threaten both. Transphobia isn’t reducible to sexism or homophobia—it’s its own phenomenon—but it shares common roots at the foundational level of patriarchal society. Even more than feminists and gays, trans people do not conform to the simple “girls are girls, and men are men” dichotomy that is at the heart of Western religions and much of Western culture. It is scary for many people to have that dichotomy disrupted, and that fear manifests in anger, rage, even deadly violence.
Moreover, trans people are more likely than LGB folks to come from communities of color, and—thanks in large part to institutionalized transphobia and the costs of health care—to live in economically disadvantaged positions. Transwomen in particular are disproportionately marginalized by society, and even by the LGBT community—I’ve heard more transphobic comments in gay spaces than in straight ones.
These are three good reasons to worry that we are witnessing a potential turning point in transgender equality, one that separates it from LGBT equality generally. I worry that this act will reverberate well beyond the military, increasing the already appalling rates of discrimination and violence against trans people.
But I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note, because I think acceptance and inclusion will win out… eventually. There are reasons for my optimism.
First, I think the LGBT community has grown up. Two decades ago, the Human Rights Campaign shamefully sold out the trans community in pushing for a non-trans-inclusive employment nondiscrimination act. That would be unthinkable today. Yes, transphobia persists, but my sense in the LGBT community is that this is being a perceived as an attack on “us”—not on “them.”
The immediate reaction to Trump’s order by the LGBT activist world and lesbian and gay celebrities suggest that this will unite and galvanize LGBTs against Trump. “You picked the wrong community to mess with,” George Takei tweeted Wednesday.
Second, the country has grown up too. Numerous Republicans have opposed Trump’s proposed ban: not just moderates like John McCain but Southern conservatives like Richard Shelby as well. Just as we’ve seen in Texas, where big business has opposed the Christian right on “bathroom bills,” military hawks who actually believe in a strong military are lining up against the Christian Right’s effort to use it as an anti-LGBT political pawn.
Finally, that maturation process has truth on its side. Look, I was transphobic myself. These days, I have a large number of trans friends, and I know the obvious, banal truth that trans people are just people: not weird, not fetish objects, certainly not dangerous. The only thing I fear about my trans friends is the risk of discrimination and violence they face. But 15 years ago, I didn’t know anyone trans, even though I was working at a nominally “GLBT” organization. I had dumb, harmful, and inaccurate ideas about gender. I thought trans was too big a deal for people to handle. I was ignorant.
But that’s the thing about the LGBT movement: It is a moral movement. It calls on each of us to reexamine our beliefs and prejudices, and to grow up as human beings. We all acquire prejudices against people who aren’t like us; that’s part of being human. But as you mature, you learn that those prejudices aren’t true, and you learn not to listen to them. Eventually, with time and effort, they diminish.
That’s why I think Trump’s fiat will backfire in the end. He has thrived on playing to the fears of Americans unable to change with the times, and he may well win a few more victories by doing so. But those Americans are dying off, and the generation replacing them doesn’t share their fears, their prejudices, and their ignorance. Eventually, they will control this country, and the transgender military ban will look as ignorant as similar bans on gay people, African Americans, and women.
Let’s just hope that day comes soon, before any more trans lives are lost.